memory / neurotic thinking / writing

The Past Is a Discovered Country But Poorly Understood

I try to remember the girl I was in this picture, but it isn't easy. (And yes, I've blogged about one of the fellows in this photo, never you mind who.)

The picture here was taken only after about two or three days in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was July 4th and I hardly knew any of my fellow volunteers. Over the next 2 years perhaps we got to know each too well in some ways and not nearly enough in others.

Seventeen years after that photo, I have no idea what has happened to any of the gentlemen in the photograph beyond this–one married a Bulgarian, one had to be psycho-vaced out of the country and perhaps his Bulgarian girlfriend joined him later, and another married his fiancee. Or so I heard.

But the other day I a particular memory of one long Peace Corps night that didn’t take place in Bulgaria came to me as vivid as yesterday (why do memories sometimes surprise us like that?). I was in Bratislava, Slovakia (a lovely cit, by the way). The time of my flight out of Bratislava and back to Sofia, Bulgaria meant spending the night in the Bratislava train station.

From one in the morning until six in the morning there are only a few men hanging out at the train station. I was the only westerner and the only woman. I walked around to stay awake. I smiled at no one. In my memory there is a lot of white and empty space. I would sit on one bench for a while and then move to another. I bought shots of coffee and techno music blared through speakers. Every man watched me get up move from one place to the next. One man spoke to me, but I didn’t speak Slovak, so I shrugged and turned away. The train station felt like the only place in the universe and the only question that returned to mind was whether any woman should ever travel alone.

No friend or family member knew where I was. This was before (can you remember this life?) before cell phones and so many laptops. There was no one to call if help was needed.

And still when I think about being 25 years old, without one bit of technology within reach, no knowledge of the language around me, at four in the morning, being watched by a few men in flashy suits or tattered, too well-worn clothes, while I struggled to stay awake, I wonder why sharing my writing is scarier.

That makes no sense, does it?

I wish I’d spent that night in the train station writing.

10 thoughts on “The Past Is a Discovered Country But Poorly Understood

  1. Things have happened to me which scared me more than the scariest things I’ve ever, y’know, chosen to do. But I truly empathize with you on this, and wonder the same thing about myself.

    I recently had a magazine ask me to send them something — almost no restrictions, just: due in a couple months, had to be prose, no more than 5000 words, and written in the first person (for some sort of upcoming theme issue). Wow, I thought, this was exciting — just what I’d hoped for: someone who approached ME about my writing, removing the burden from me. I didn’t know about the magazine, though, and asked some trusted people (a couple lit-mag editors, a fellow neurotic writer :)) what they thought I should do. Gathered responses and then… just… sat.

    They didn’t ask JUST me, though; eventually I noticed that the “To:” field of the email message didn’t have my email address (any of them), but the email address of the sender — a giveaway that I (and probably hundreds of others) were just bcc’d. When I noticed this (and after my balloon stopped deflating), I came up with a plan of action. I emailed the editor, thanked him for picking me (ha ha), and asked for more details. As expected, I never heard back. “Successfully ducked the need to decide about THAT,” I thought, and resumed my moping routine.

    But then he followed up last week, after a couple months’ silence, along the lines of “Hey, John, thanks for getting back to us” and providing more details, as I’d asked. Rats. Rats, rats, rats.

    And sigh.

    Funny that you seem to look back on your train-station night not as an adventure that turned out not only fine, but uniquely personal and memorable, but as an “adventure” that might have gone very wrong. (I realize recent events might contribute to that.)

    • I’ve been meaning to ask you about that lit mag incident and what you’d decided. What have you decided?

      I generally look back on that trip as a great adventure. I’m glad I did it. But, yes, certain recent events have put me in a certain frame of mind.

  2. That guy to your left is quite the dapper one, with that young-George Clooney hairdo.

    The only place I’ve been where I didn’t speak the language was south Texas. That was a joke–I actually went just across the Mexican border once. But the point is that I’ve never been in a place where I couldn’t communicate my needs. The very thought of the situation you describe invokes panic in my animal brain, and it’s a big reason I admire you (one of many), that you had adventures like this while I frittered away my opportunities out of fear. Don’t get me wrong, I was in plenty of awkward-slash-dangerous situations, but they were all of the home-grown variety.

    >>I wish I’d spent that night in the train station writing.>> Perfect way to sum it up.

    • There are several reasons I’m not going to comment on that guy to my left, more than to say I’m sure he thought he was dapper.

      Back then I didn’t really think of things as adventures. They were just the options I had.

      Ah, writing. I miss it so.

  3. I’m sort of with Sherri; don’t think I’d ever be in Bulgaria or any place LIKE Bulgaria for ANY reason, never mind VOLUNTEERING to be there. That in itself scares me WAAAAAYY more than anyone’s opinion of my writing. (As I get older, I’m becoming a less sensitive writer and doing a lot more shrugging and saying, “Oh well, I guess if you don’t like it you don’t like it and you’re an asshat.”)

    I’ve spent nights in shady neighborhoods, but you know what? I’m not a woman. Must be different for you. I’m not as likely to get sideways glances from furtive men in weird clothes at four a.m. Although this one Halloween in San Francisco…

    • Sadly, being a woman does put a different spin on these situations. I’ve always deluded myself that being so tall helps, you know, like it wards guys off. I could stomp on them on something.

      Sharing my writing is way more scary. I’m an idiot that way.

  4. Your writing makes you feel more exposed and vulnerable than being in a strange country where no one else speaks your language and men are giving you the up and down looks. You are like a singer who cannot sing or a dancer who cannot dance.

    Is it perhaps that you don’t want to share yourself in that way? That you fear – sort of like the old Native American fear of photographs – that if you give it away, you’ll lose part of your soul?

    • Maybe you’re on to something there, Darcs. And perhaps this is related to my inability to speak when I need to express certain, particular things. A literal inability to speak without contortions or tears.

  5. “A literal inability to speak without contortions or tears.” I’ve met many writers like that Marta, me included. it’s part of why I write- to use my voice that can otherwise betray me with too much emotion. Perhaps you’re more frightened of sharing your work because your work has been rejected. After all, nothing happened in that train station. I did so many stupid things when I was young, mostly out of ignorance of what the consequences might be, and, as you say, because I didn’t perceive any other options and often (not always) nothing really bad happened. But once we start to submit our work and it gets slapped down (at least that’s how it feels) then it can get harder to keep stepping up for that next possible slap in the face. Try to see the rejections as moths flitting past your face- just shoo them away. Sometimes a train station is just a train station, and sometimes a rejection is just a moth.

    • Sarah, I though rejection of my work didn’t bother me more than it should. Not fun, but manageable and part of the process. I don’t know.

      When I was a kid, I remember learning not to say certain things because no one would listen and nothing would change. And to this day when people do things that upset me, I almost never say anything because I can’t see the point, and if I do try and say something I can’t breath properly and cry. When I share my work, I feel the same sort of panic stirring in my stomach.

      And this risks sounding whiny, but I have such trouble seeing in my mind my work ever being ready to submit anywhere, I mean, how is what I write ever going to be good enough? I’m stuck and can’t see making the work any better. And where it is isn’t good enough, and so why bother?

      But the idea of giving pains me.

      NaNoWriMo is coming though, and that usually inspires me and helps reset my thinking.

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